Whether or not BC’s Christian Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed law school is accredited by the Law Society of British Columbia will be decided by a binding, mail-out referendum involving all the province’s 11,000 lawyers, the society’s directors decided Sept 26.
Society directors (also known as benchers) had voted in April to approve the school.
At the heart of the debate is TWU’s community covenant. For admission, students must sign the covenant agreeing to uphold Christian biblical teachings, including no premarital sex and no homosexuality. Failure to uphold these commitments, according to the student handbook, could result in discipline, dismissal or a refusal to readmit a student to the university.
That covenant has led to a polarization in the legal community as lawyers grapple with the need to protect gay people from discrimination and the need to uphold freedom of religion and association.
It’s that polarization and the society’s April approval of the school, which led to a special general meeting (SGM) of the society June 11 after thousands of lawyers petitioned for a reconsideration of the decision. There, members voted three to one to direct the society’s board of directors to reverse its earlier decision and reject the proposed law school.
While the resolution was not binding, the society’s directors promised to give it serious and thoughtful consideration. That consideration led to the presentation of three motions voted on Sept 26.
Director Jamie Maclaren’s motion urged the board to act on the SGM vote and reverse its earlier approval. He said gay people attending such a school would be deprived of their human dignity. “They would be treated as inferior, regarded as inferior . . . simply because of who they are.”
David Mossop’s motion suggested the society wait for the courts to decide on some of the lawsuits now filed in several provinces. Many directors agreed that any final decision on the TWU law faculty’s fate would likely be made by the Supreme Court of Canada, though a decision may not be made until 2017, well after the school’s 2016 anticipated opening.
However, it was director Tony Wilson’s motion to hold a referendum by the end of October that won the day.
Director Herman Van Ommen supported the referendum. “Freedom of religion must yield to the right not to be discriminated against,” he said. “I will have no difficulty implementing this [decision].”
Director Miriam Kresivo said a referendum would be the most democratic option. But director Joe Arvay, who represented Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore in its fight against Canada Customs’ book seizures, questioned the need for a referendum, calling its result a foregone conclusion after the general meeting resolution.
“Those who voted in June are those who cared enough to vote,” he said, supporting the motion to rescind approval without further delay.
He said putting the decision to lawyers again would be akin to judge-shopping for a favourable court result. “The members have spoken,” Arvay said. “It is time to put the TWU issue behind us.”
Director Cameron Ward agreed. “British Columbia should not have a law school that discriminates against LGBTQ people,” he said. “This debate has nothing to do with religious freedom but is about discriminatory education of future lawyers and judges.”
Queer lawyer barbara findlay calls the decision to have a referendum a slap in the face to the legal profession.
“That the benchers would disrespect the overwhelming majority vote at the largest lawyer meeting in BC history is breathtaking,” findlay said in a press release after the meeting. “We will tell the benchers as many times as they need to hear it that their decision to accede to TWU’s discriminatory policies is morally and legally wrong.
“On June 10, the legal profession turned out en masse to demand courageous and principled leadership from their Benchers,” she continued. “This is not leadership. This is anything but.”
Many directors acknowledged that the current legal precedent in the situation is the 2001 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Trinity Western University versus British Columbia College of Teachers. That ruling upheld TWU’s right to teach Christian values to would-be teachers and to insist that incoming students sign the covenant. TWU’s graduating teachers are entitled to hold “sexist, racist or homophobic beliefs,” the court ruled, as long as they don’t act on them in the public school classrooms to which they might be assigned.
Many have argued, though, that the 2001 decision is outdated and no longer reflects the attitudes of Canadian society.
No date has yet been set for the referendum ballots to be mailed or returned.
Elsewhere in Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan have decided to accept TWU graduates, while Ontario and Nova Scotia refused.
TWU is suing Ontario and Nova Scotia for their refusals, while a gay plaintiff in BC is suing the provincial government for its approval of TWU, saying the proposed school will discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and religious grounds.